Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind – 1984 – dir. Hayao Miyazaki
The Miyazaki who first came up with the idea for Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind in the early ‘80s was a revolutionary. An ardent Marxist and outspoken critic of the anime industry, he was ready to shake up an artform and inspire young minds with a film that begins after the death of modern civilization and ends with a Messianic arrival of peace and harmony. With funding from the World Wildlife Federation and a popular comic book adaptation to sell the concept, Nausicaa ultimately made little immediate impact but can now be considered one of the all-time classics of anime, and established the concern for the environment, strong feminist viewpoint, and conflicted mix of weapons fetishism and pacifist ideology which would permeate his future work.
The set-up’s bleak. A man in a gas mask rides a giant bird through a wasteland littered with corpses. He tries to pick up a doll on the ground, only for it to disintegrate. “Another village destroyed by the Toxic Jungle,” the man says to himself. Creepy-looking insects fly around. Voice over tells of the end of civilization due to environmental destruction a thousand years ago. The credits play over burning cities. Then a girl in a gas mask, carrying a sword and a giant gun, flies a glider into a forest. And what does she do?
She puts some plants in test tubes, gathers some building materials for her family, dances around in joy, and then relaxes to take in the beauty of her surroundings. When her rest is interrupted by a giant insect attack, she doesn’t fight the bug but calms it down, like a hyper dog that just needs to be told to sit. Amidst all the apocalyptic imagery and war-like set-up, the title heroine turns out to be an essentially peaceful one who shows great love for the earth even after its been rendered mostly unlivable by humans. Even when her near-utopian village is under threat by the forces of both man and nature, Princess Nausicaa has one enemy: anger. When the anger comes from the giant Ohmu bugs, she uses her natural gifts as an insect charmer. When the anger comes from warring humans, she is a less gifted calmer but makes her voice loud and clear that she doesn’t want any killing. At her most vulnerable moment, after a soldier kills her ailing father, she becomes the source of anger, taking down a whole armed regiment before running away in disgust with herself. Nobody’s directly good or evil in Nausicaa, and even the main “villain” character, Kushana, is shown to have sympathetic motivation for her actions, but everybody is capable of committing acts of terrible destruction given the wrong circumstances.
Miyazaki takes an interest in the political dynamics of the future shown in Nausicaa. Nausicaa’s Valley of the Wind is shown as a near-Utopian oasis; the old and the sick are well taken care of while every birth is a cause for the entire village to celebrate. Their single failing is a fear of nature, which Nausicaa remedies through her friendly dealings with the Ohmu and scientific experiments that show how the ecosystem is slowly healing itself from a man-made level of toxicity. The militaristic nation Tolmekia takes over the Valley with promise to protect it from the Toxic Jungle, but their form of “protection” involves an offensive attack on the jungle using the God Warrior, the same weapon that destroyed civilization a thousand years ago. Nausicaa agrees to ally with them, but only because she believes it’s the choice that will cause the least casualties. When she figures out what the Tolmekians are actually plotting, she joins up with the opposing nation of Pejite.
The leaders of Pejite want to prevent the usage of the God Warrior and end the Tolmekians’ imperialism, but they are revealed responsible for the Warrior’s preservation and extremely irresponsible in regards to the environment. Written at the end of the Cold War, it’s easy to draw parallels with Pejite as America and Tolmekia as the USSR, with the Valley being an idealized semi-socialist nation tragically manipulated by both superpowers and the God Warrior as the bomb. In the end Nausicaa creates peace between the nations, but only after she grows disillusioned with all nations. In a scene telling of Nausicaa’s and perhaps Miyazaki’s emotional psyche, she and Prince Asbel of Pejite arrive at a burned down city with a dead Ohmu in the center. Nausicaa immediately mourns “A dead Ohmu!” and Asbel immediately has to remind her “The capitol’s been destroyed!” Capitol cities don’t matter anymore to Nausicaa; only corpses do.
Nausicaa the movie ultimately ties up neatly and happily. Miyazaki was unsatisfied with this ending, and spent the next decade writing a conclusion to satisfying himself more in comic book form. A lot happened to Miyazaki between the release of the movie and the end of the comic: in addition to growing in stature from a promising cult director to a Japanese household name, he abandoned Marxism and grew increasingly critical of mainstream environmentalist viewpoints. In an article published in 1994 to coincide with the conclusion of the comic, he expressed displeasure with his own plot devices, writing “The idea that nature is always gentle and will give birth to something like the Toxic Jungle in order to restore an environment polluted by humans is a total lie. And I believe that we should cling to such a saccharine worldview is a big problem” (Starting Point, p.169). He clarifies that the message he ultimately wanted to send from Nausicaa was one of hope, but that he doesn’t think of hope anymore as the certainty of positive consequences, as the Messianic parts of Nausicaa would seem to implicate, but rather “working and struggling along with people important to you” (170) while not knowing for sure what your actions will bring about. It’s this concept of hope that he would clarify in Princess Mononoke.
Miyazaki Morality Part II: Princess Mononoke
From the start, Princess Mononoke distinguishes itself from its spiritual predecessor Nausicaa in a few major ways: it is set in ancient Japan as opposed to the far future, with nature gods at war with humanity rather than giant bugs, and the protagonist is a boy rather than a girl. The opening minutes of Mononoke parallel those of Nausicaa, albeit at a slightly faster pace: narration and a dark atmosphere sets up the world and basic conflict, the hero is introduced as village royalty who is at one with nature and has to defend his home against an outside beast consumed by anger. The parallels start to become inverses, however, as Ashitaka, the hero in Mononoke, is left with no choice but to kill the beast while Nausicaa is able to calm it. Ashitaka’s village is significantly less idealized than Nausicaa’s; when Ashitaka is inflicted with a curse in battle, he is not cared for but banished. When he leaves his home, his younger sister gives him a dagger as a goodbye gift, paralleling a scene in Nausicaa where a group of young children give Nausicaa some food before she has to depart. The difference here is that Ashitaka’s sister isn’t allowed to be speaking with him. Ashitaka’s village may be peaceful, but at the cost of how it treats its people in times of need.
Both Mononoke and Nausicaa contain man vs. nature and man vs. man storylines, but with Mononoke it seems that Miyazaki stopped caring to write about human wars. Yes, there’s a war going on between the mining village of Irontown where Ashitaka stays and an army of samurai, but there’s no political background, not even much philosophizing on the nature of the fight. Mostly it just seems to be there as a plot device, to show Ashitaka’s curse taking hold of him and compelling him to decapitate a few samurai, and to demonstrate Irontown leader Lady Eboshi’s positive qualities in training abused prostitutes and lepers to make weapons and defend themselves against attack before she ruthlessly abandons her own men to kill the Great Forest Spirit.
Ashitaka himself seems to be mostly a plot device; where Nausicaa was a compelling protagonist often in conflict with herself, Ashitaka’s a bland cipher of a hero. His every wrongdoing can be easily attributed to a curse outside his own control. Perhaps Miyazaki just isn’t that good at creating interesting male leads as opposed to female ones, the single exception in his filmography, Marco in Porco Rosso, essentially being a caricature of Miyazaki himself. Perhaps the curse is an allegory for an inability to comprehend the darker aspects of human nature, as a monk asks Ashitaka rhetorically “So you say you’re under a curse? So what? So is the whole damn world!” Miyazaki fortunately does not shy away from a more layered portrayal of human darkness with his wonderful supporting cast. Fighting for Irontown is Lady Eboshi, a spiritual successor to Kushana with a fascinating mix of strong leadership, positive even Christ-like traits, and yet a destructive ruthlessness and carelessness towards nature. Fighting for nature is San, the titular “Princess Mononoke” (meaning “Princess Ghost” in Japanese) raised by wolves and so hateful towards what human civilization is doing to the forest that she can fully accept neither herself nor her feelings towards Ashitaka. Both characters are highly compelling, much moreso than the lead.
Princess Mononoke is loud in its ecological message. Certain scenes of deforestation clearly influenced James Cameron in his similarly themed Avatar. Miyazaki’s reading of environmental catastophe is a bit more layered than Cameron’s, taking somewhat of a Darwinistic approach to nature’s response. A boar god and a wolf god are shot by the same type of bullet, yet where the boar lets this turn him into a demon and the members of his tribe are led to death in a blind angry battle, the wolf stays in control and ultimately gets her revenge on Eboshi for shooting her. Yet for Miyazaki, survival of the fittest requires an understanding and sympathy for the less fit; when Eboshi leaves the bodies of her killed soldiers out on the field, her flat declaration “They’re dead. Let’s get the living home,” takes Miyazaki’s own ideas of living in the moment and turns them callous and reprehensible. More in line with a positive interpretation of Miyazaki’s philosophy would be the priestess at the beginning of the movie who tells Ashitaka “You can’t alter your fate, but you can chose to meet it if you wish,” and Ashitaka and San at the film’s end, when they have returned the Forest Spirit’s head and now must go separate ways to struggle rebuilding civilization and nature, not knowing what their actions will lead to but simply trying to live in peace.
Nausicaa and Mononoke are both strong spiritual films with very different spiritual ideas. Nausicaa looks at humanity’s relationship with the environment through an optimistic lens with a Messianic solution, and due to the strong world and character development and the suspension of disbelief that comes with good science fiction, it works. Thirteen years later, Mononoke does not see any such perfect peace emerging, only a continuation of life. The Forest Spirit relinquishes control over the fate of nature to humans in the end, and while humans will always try there’s no trust they will ever succeed in finding peace with the environment or with each other. Nausicaa may make a more satisfying film, but Mononoke shows an evolved and ultimately more truthful message.